More so than most shows, Agents of SHIELD had a lot of expectations going into its first season. Not only from the enormous success of The Avengers, not only from its place in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also with the name Joss Whedon attached to it as well. Needless to say, it had a lot to live up to – and the general consensus is that, for whatever the reasons, it didn’t quite succeed.
Though the show had a somewhat rougher start in its second season, a rather surprising thing has occurred: it’s actually developed into a good show in its last few episodes. A really good show. One that bests whatever heights it may have achieved in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One that assures fans that, though it’s not a true Joss Whedon experience, it could still very well turn into a quality comic book tv series all the same.
I expressed some of my concerns back at the start of the year as to what kind of changes I wanted to see, and though not all of them have been met, I do take comfort in what’s been done so far.
So what kind of improvements has it made? For one thing, it’s doing considerably better with its cast. In the first year, there was the sense that the show was trying way too hard to be funny all the time – with an excess of one-liners and juvenile antics that not only robbed whatever attempts the show made at true drama less effective, but also quickly established the majority of the main cast as too silly to be likable or engaging.
But the writers have been some remarkably smart decisions, more than one building on events from last year, and it shows. They took advantage of Fitz’s state in the season finale to rob the character of his greatest strength – his intellect – and in turn, transformed him into one of the most emotionally compelling characters with a surprising degree of pathos. Particularly in light of how it’s evolved the dynamic between he and Simmons, who now may have too much baggage between them to reconnect.
In a similar vein, boy scout Ward – a character who rarely resonated as anything more than a generic agent through much of first season – has become incredibly more interesting now that they’ve made him, to a degree, evil. Perhaps even insane. Certainly morally ambiguous. And letting him toe that line regarding which side he’s on, with his motives constantly in question, has made him for an appealing “is-he-really-a-villain?” kind of a character.
Almost ironically, the newer additions have also fleshed out the cast, as the larger the ensemble has become, the more dynamic the group is as a whole. Adrianne Palicki as Bobbi Morse is positively delightful (and really should be added to the main cast), Mack has been a welcome addition – particularly through his emotional support of Fitz – Whitehall has resonated as a stronger villain than the Clairvoyant ever did, Patton Oswalt is perfect at bringing the funny, and Kyle MacLachlan might just be the greatest new character on any established show this season.
What it’s allowed is for deeper and more believable relationships between a more dynamic cast, and a greater sense of ambiguity between a host of villains and heroes. In addition, the show has scaled back on trying too hard with the humor, and the result is that not only is there a greater sense of fun, while the funny stands to a larger degree.
The other major factor they’ve incorporated is serialization. The first season was largely spinning its wheels, likely waiting for the Hydra twist so they could finally tell the stories they had been waiting for. This made the entire affair a bit of a slog to get through. But given the comic book material in play, to say nothing of how these kinds of genres benefit from the conceit, serialization has been an immensely welcome new element for the show.
Among other things, it makes the stories across the board more compelling, as the interconnectivity of the narrative grows, until we get greater and greater payoff – something we saw even just in the mid-season finale. There was the mystery of Coulson’s carvings, which grew into the search for the city, which connected into the obelisk, and all tied together in a satisfying climax that saw Raina and Skye emerge as the Inhumans we now know them to be. In other words, the show has better figured out how to do the necessary leg work to give satisfying payoff down the line.
This also gives the show a greater degree of focus and momentum. Last year, we weren’t really building toward anything, and even seeds that were planted weren’t interesting enough in themselves – or brought to the fore often enough – to merit longterm investment. The Clairvoyant was so vague and abstract a threat that even when the truth of his identity emerged, it was still overshadowed by the Hydra takeover. And the Deathlok storyline – despite the best of J August Richard’s abilities – never achieved the needed level of pathos and ambiguity to be properly engaging.
But the buildup to the Inhuman reveal has never stalled, and indeed, built rather organically out of elements established early in the season. The reveal that the whole affair was for the search of a city came at a surprisingly early point in the year, letting us know that they were already intending to move stories along with a greater pace. This also means that instead of dithering about whether or not these are Inhumans, now we can spend the backhalf of the year actually getting into the meat of what this means.
A few quibbles do remain, though hopefully they’ll be somewhat rectified in episodes to come. There’s still a bit too much of everything being about Skye – something that bogged down many of last year’s episodes. It’s best when the show remembers it’s an ensemble – and with more storylines given to her than most, it would be nice to let her fall back into supporting player for a while. Similarly, May – as what is arguably the show’s greatest character – needs something more to do than simply act as Coulson’s second-in-command. She more than deserves her own storyline, and it’s well past time she finally got one.
Of course, the show has shown quality in the past and slipped again (as it did in the first season finale following a strong showing of episodes). But it’s at a great place now, and one does get the sense the writers have more confidence about what they’re trying to accomplish from here on out. Let’s hope they use what’s been achieved in the first ten episodes to finally transform into Agents of SHIELD into the show we all hoped it would be.